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The rules for selling a home during the coronavirus crisis

Home sales are sometimes an “essential business”—but you have to play by the rules


Is real estate considered “essential business” during the COVID-19 crisis? The California Association of Realtors (CAR) thinks so, citing guidance from the federal government, but opinions vary and there are a lot hoops to jump through for real estate agents attempting to work during this strange season.

Lotus Lou, spokesperson for CAR, tells Curbed SF that previously agents could only show homes virtually. Now guidelines in many jurisdictions have loosened up, and in some Bay Area cities in-person tours are allowed once again—but with caution.

“Open houses are still not allowed,” says Lou, noting that when city, county, and state rules conflict, realtors must abide by whatever standard is the most restrictive. She adds that more brokerages are doing their jobs chiefly—or, in some cases, entirely—online.

“The practice of selling real estate has been deemed essential,” Vanessa Bergmark, CEO of Red Oak Realty in the East Bay, tells Curbed SF. “However, many ancillary services—staging, prep including landscaping, painting, tiling, floors—is not.”

And the rules vary from place to place; Contra Costa County and most of Alameda County allow photographers to shoot homes for sale, for example, but Berkeley does not.

Center for Disease Control [CDC] guidelines instruct home sellers how to properly disinfect a house, like disinfecting doorknobs and light switches and other constantly touched surfaces. However, Bergmark says that CDC-approved cleaning agents, like bleach and rubbing alcohol cleaning products, are difficult to come find right now. She calls the patchwork of different standards “muddled.”

Vanguard Realtor Marco Caraval notes that brokerages are implementing their own rules about how to make the selling process safer. “I’ve had agents offer to allow in-person access to my buyers after signing forms” releasing the owners from legal liability, he says.

To learn more about how San Francisco is dealing with the rules of selling a home during a pandemic, Joseph Sweiss, spokesperson for the SF Department of Emergency Management, broke down the dos and don’ts of brokering while sheltering in place:

  • “Real estate agents, escrow agents, and other service providers that facilitate residential transactions like home sales and apartment rentals are essential workers” under SF’s current rules, says Sweiss. However, in-person tours of any kind are off limits in almost all cases.
  • Only in cases where a virtual tour is impossible (for example, because no photos or 3D models were created before the shelter-in-place order) may a physical tour happen, and those are limited to two visitors and one agent, and restricted to unoccupied units.
  • San Franciscans are allowed to move into new homes, but only in cases where moving plans predate the shelter-in-place order and cannot be avoided—e.g., if not moving would result in homelessness, physical danger (like escaping domestic violence), or unsanitary conditions. Note that moving services are essential businesses under SF’s health order and currently remain in operation.
  • Sweiss reemphasizes that when state and local rules conflict “you must comply with the stricter of the two orders.”

For more details on the new rules in real estate, Redfin created a map of the U.S. breaking down the different guidelines for showing homes in different cities and counties.